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With the country still struggling with the economy, some associates are worrying that their end-of-the-fiscal-year reviews are being determined less by their performance — and more by the economy’s performance. According to some associates and headhunters, firms may be using tougher standards to evaluate associates this year, cutting costs by weeding out lawyers who, in past years, might have made the grade. Robert Nourian, a principal with Coleman Per Diem, said he is seeing an increase in young, highly qualified lawyers turning to contract work after being told by their firms to search for new employment. “Anecdotally, there are more people being notified that perhaps they don’t have a future with the firm and that they should look elsewhere and being given a time limit as to when they should look elsewhere,” Nourian said. “The rate of these folks is higher than, say, two or three years ago. Some people are drawing the conclusion that, because the economy’s a little tighter and there isn’t as much work to go around, associates … are being looked at a little more closely this year and harder decisions are being made by firm management.” Nourian also said that while he usually sees a certain number of senior attorneys who have been let go, several first-, second- and third-year associates are seeking contract work this year. Sandra Mannix, a consultant at Abelson Legal Search, said she, too, had noticed a higher-than-usual number of younger associates losing their jobs. “From our perspective, it appears that at least some firms are giving borderline people perhaps a little less opportunity to prove themselves; that in the past, where [the firm] might have said, Let’s give it another year, they are instead suggesting, This probably is not going to work out in the long run,” Mannix said. “They’re just not being given a grace year. … It’s less a reflection on their abilities in many ways than it is that firms just don’t have the volume of work to bring them along for another year.” One midlevel associate said she had heard of a few associates suddenly looking to switch firms, which she chalks up to negative performance reviews. “I’ve heard from a couple of friends who were looking and ‘decided’ that it was time to move on,” she said. Legal recruiter Liz Shapiro said she had been seeing an unusually large number of associates who tell her they are leaving their current firm voluntarily but who she believes have been asked to leave. “There was one firm [where] I must have had three junior associates tell me they were going to leave whether they had a job or not, which, frankly, I don’t believe,” Shapiro said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many well-credentialed attorneys leaving jobs supposedly on their own. I don’t buy it.” Shapiro said she believes firms must be using tougher standards to evaluate associates than they have in years past. “These attorneys can’t all be doing that badly,” she said. In fact, the midlevel associate said friends at other firms had told her they were under more pressure than usual to meet billable hours. “I’d say definitely there is more emphasis on hours,” she said. “You could be doing a great job and you think you did well, but if your hours were not up there, that’s the first thing they mention. I’ve heard from a lot of my friends who are even being told before their official review to be mindful of their hours.” An associate at Philadelphia-based Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen also said associate evaluations at his firm had been tougher this year than in the past. “Wolf Block in general has a reputation for very tough reviews,” the associate said. “We basically like to say that if you’re a fantastic associate, they’ll basically say, ‘By and large, you’re doing very well, but here are 10 negative comments.’ … This particular review cycle, everyone got a generally satisfactory review, but I think they were a little bit tougher on us. Everyone that I spoke to got a series of satisfactory, but here are 15 negative comments instead of 10 negative comments.” Those conducting the evaluations at the large firms say, though, that their methods of reviewing associates have not changed from when the economy was booming. “We completed [our associate evaluations] at the end of the calendar year, and I think we applied the same standards that we’ve always applied,” said Geoffrey Kahn, professional personnel partner at Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. “I don’t think we changed our message. I don’t think we changed our standards.” Legal consultant Joel Rose said firms might not actually be letting associates go at the same rate as they did during the last recession. “When the boom period came and the demand for legal services soared, some of these firms had difficulties in satisfying their clients,” Rose said. “Hence, they didn’t want to get caught in that predicament now, [so they have been] somewhat slower in reducing their staff.” Still, what is a weeded-out associate to do? Besides taking on contract work, many associates coming from the large firms have been hired by small or mid-size firms, and some have found jobs in areas of the law that have not been hit hard by the lagging economy. But, according to Shapiro, the future is sometimes bleak for associates who are cut from the payroll. “I think these things are career killers, frankly,” she said. “As a recruiter, our clients want the ones who aren’t being laid off.” Associates, Shapiro said, must be proactive in preventing their firms from evaluating them negatively this year. “Do the best work and work as hard as [you] possibly can,” she advised. According to Melissa Schwartz, chairwoman of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, associates who fear they might be weeded out need to present their cases before end-of-the-year reviews roll around. “I think you need to sell yourself,” Schwartz said. “You have to lay out not only what you’ve billed but everything else you’ve contributed to the firm in the past year. … [You should] prove that the firm needs you, that you’re not just another billing robot. Don’t wait until after the decision has been made.”

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